IDEAS home Printed from
MyIDEAS: Log in (now much improved!) to save this article

Can economic, land use and climatic stresses lead to famine, disease, warfare and death? Using Europe's calamitous 14th century as a parable for the modern age

Listed author(s):
  • Fraser, Evan D.G.
Registered author(s):

    Although many of today's ecological, climatic and socio-economic problems seem unprecedented, similar events have occurred in the past. As such, historic periods of climatic and economic volatility can be used as a way of developing frameworks for analyzing today's predicament. Western Europe's "middle ages" (circa 11-14th century) may be one such case. By the 12th century, medieval Europe had shifted from the subsistence agrarian economy that emerged following the collapse of the Roman Empire to one where spatially dispersed trade in agricultural commodities helped support a complex society that devoted considerable resources to cultural works. This shift was facilitated by new institutional arrangements centred on monastic orders that provided access to both new agricultural and food processing technologies as well as trade routes. These institutional arrangements contributed to population growth and land clearing. All of these factors increased the wealth of society but also concentrated this wealth in a small number of communities that were dependent on an ever-increasing and exploited hinterland for resources. Ultimately, this created a tightly coupled continent-wide subsistence system that was vulnerable to the weather, economic and disease shocks of the 14th century when Europe's population declined by perhaps 50%. In exploring this history, the goal of this paper is to draw on a diverse theoretical body of literature (that includes resiliency theory, landscape ecology, political science and ecological economics) to develop a series of hypotheses about how large-scale complex civilizations can become vulnerable to climate change.

    If you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: Full text for ScienceDirect subscribers only

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to look for a different version under "Related research" (further below) or search for a different version of it.

    Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Ecological Economics.

    Volume (Year): 70 (2011)
    Issue (Month): 7 (May)
    Pages: 1269-1279

    in new window

    Handle: RePEc:eee:ecolec:v:70:y:2011:i:7:p:1269-1279
    Contact details of provider: Web page:

    References listed on IDEAS
    Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:

    in new window

    1. Gregory Clark, 2005. "The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1209-2004," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 113(6), pages 1307-1340, December.
    2. A. R. Bridbury, 1977. "Before the Black Death," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 30(3), pages 393-410, 08.
    3. Sing C. Chew, 2008. "Historical Social Movements, Ecological Crisis and ‘Other’ World Views," Journal of Developing Societies, , vol. 24(1), pages 31-56, March.
    4. Panayotou, Theodore, 1997. "Demystifying the environmental Kuznets curve: turning a black box into a policy tool," Environment and Development Economics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 2(04), pages 465-484, November.
    5. Stephanie Mercier, 1999. "The Evolution of World Grain Trade," Review of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 21(1), pages 225-236.
    6. Thirsk, Joan, 1997. "Alternative Agriculture: A History: From the Black Death to the Present Day," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198206620.
    7. Bebbington, Anthony, 1999. "Capitals and Capabilities: A Framework for Analyzing Peasant Viability, Rural Livelihoods and Poverty," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 27(12), pages 2021-2044, December.
    8. Joshua M. Epstein & Robert L. Axtell, 1996. "Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262550253, January.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    This item is not listed on Wikipedia, on a reading list or among the top items on IDEAS.

    When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:eee:ecolec:v:70:y:2011:i:7:p:1269-1279. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Dana Niculescu)

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.

    If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    This information is provided to you by IDEAS at the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis using RePEc data.